Things people think

By Gordon Rugg

There’s a wryly humorous summary of models of humanity that floats around in academia. It appears in various forms; the one below has an astute punch line that highlights the amount of implicit assumption in the early models.

Models of humankind:

  • Man the fallen creation (the Bible)
  • Man the thinker (the Enlightenment)
  • Heroic man (Nietzsche)
  • Economic man (Marx)
  • Man the rat (Skinner)
  • Man the woman (feminism)

It’s humorous, but it cuts to the heart of the matter. The models that shape our lives – political models, religious models, economic models – are based on underlying assumptions about how people think and what people want. As is often the case with models, these assumptions are often demonstrably wrong.

In this article, I’ll examine some common assumptions, and I’ll discuss some other ways of thinking about what people are really like.


Images from Wikipedia and Wikimedia; details at the end of this article

Reason, unreason and emotion: The traditional view

As usual, the Ancient Greeks got into the story early, and as usual, they came up with a very plausible argument that dragged everyone off in the wrong direction for the next couple of millennia.

At the heart of that argument is a distinction between logic (viewed as cool, correct, ordered, but impersonal) and emotion (viewed as hot, often wrong, messy, but natural). The classical terms were Apollonian and Dionysian respectively; the Enlightenment version was Classical versus Romantic; the modern(ish) version is Spock versus Kirk.

It’s a plausible model, and it appears to correspond well with what people experience. The same, however, is true of expert practical jokes and confidence tricks; plausibility and correspondence with everyday experience aren’t guarantees of success.

An implicit assumption at the heart of this distinction is that “logic” is correct, and that therefore anything which is not “logical” will either be incorrect, or will only be correct by accident. (There’s a reason for the quotation marks, which I’ll unpack below.) This is a particularly important point because some of the most influential economic and political theories are based on a core assumption that consumers make rational choices.

So what happens when “logic” gives one answer, and “emotion/nature” gives a different answer?

  • In the Apollonian/Classicist/Spock view, “logic” trumps “emotion/nature”.
  • In the Dionysian/Romantic/Kirk view, “emotion/nature” trumps “logic.
  • There’s a third traditional way of viewing this question, which is to view it as a difficult balancing act. A lot of great drama is about the tension between these two choices.

The debate has been going on for over two thousand years. That’s usually a sign that there’s something wrong, or something missing. Those things started to become apparent once researchers started trying to produce rigorous, testable models of how to make decisions in the real world.

Algorithms, heuristics, serial processing and parallel processing

The first computers performed brilliantly at calculations within a traditional logical framework, dealing with clearly defined data. An obvious next step was to try using computers to tackle other types of problems where human experts were demonstrably fallible, such as medicine. The hope was that Spock-like rationality would produce better results. The reality was that computerised consistency often out-performed inconsistent humans. Logic, however, was another matter.

Formal classical logic is fine if you’re dealing with complete and correct information. Most real-world problems, however, don’t have that luxury; usually, real world problems involve messy, incomplete, unreliable information. It’s possible to handle many of these problems with a reasonable success rate, but the way that you have to handle them is very different from traditional classical logic. Instead of using algorithms – procedures which guarantee a correct solution if you follow them properly – you usually have to use heuristics, which are rules of thumb that give you a better-than-random-chance likelihood of a working solution.(There are also numerous different types of formal logic, designed for use with different types of input, which is why I’ve used quotation marks around previous mentions of “logic” which implied that only one type existed.)

Another issue about traditional classical logic is that it involves serial processing, i.e. a set of steps performed one after the other. However, most real-world activities require identifying objects and patterns, which serial processing can’t handle. For identifying objects and for pattern-matching, you need parallel processing, which is a very different beast. I’ve written about this distinction and its implications here, here and here.

The implication is that framing human thought, desires and behaviour in terms of logic versus emotion is the wrong starting point. To make better sense of these issues, you need a different starting point, and different framings. The following sections describe some more powerful framings. They’re speculations, but they’re speculations that are grounded in a broad range of theory and evidence, and that provide some interesting new insights and ways of thinking about human behaviour.

Sensory regulation, stimming and chilling, and unpredictability within a frame

One recurrent theme in human behaviour is sensory self-regulation. We use a range of activities to regulate our levels of sensory load, and to keep those levels within a preferred range. Some activities increase sensory stimulation; others reduce it. Sports and the entertainment media are typically about stimulation; many hobbies are about reducing sensory arousal. Some activities, such as music, occur in a range of forms, some of which provide sensory stimulation, and others of which are calming.

This framing makes sense of phenomena in a range of areas. In autism research, for instance, a commonly reported phenomenon is stimming, which involves sensory self-stimulation such as hand-flapping. Conversely, a common problem among children diagnosed with autism is sensory overload, leading to the child closing their eyes and putting their hands over their ears to reduce their sensory load down to manageable levels.

One key variable is whether something is perceived as threatening or not. I’ve blogged previously about how this relates to humour, horror, shock and other phenomena.

This issue makes sense of sports and games, and of genres within fiction (e.g. action movies and horror movies). All of these involve clearly established frameworks of rules and regularities, providing a safe surrounding context, within which there is uncertainty and novelty. In terms of sensory self-regulation, this provides a comfortable combination of safe predictability (the rules and conventions) and unpredictability (what the outcome of the game or movie will be, within those rules and conventions).


This framing doesn’t at first sight appear to handle another important aspect of human behaviour, namely competition for status and power. There’s been a lot of research into this area, with some classic analyses by Weber and by Nietzsche, as well as a host of social anthropologists and sociologists. It’s clearly an important issue.

However, if we ask why competition occurs for status and power, then we get some interesting possible answers that take us back to the themes we’ve been examining earlier.

One set of answers relate to resources; the more status and power you have, the more resources you can control. The more resources you can control, the more ways you have of handling sensory regulation.

Another set of answers relate to control per se; the more status and power you have, the more you are able to control the people and the world around you. In both cases, you’re reducing possible threat, and you’re also increasing your ability to regulate your sensory input via increased access to sources of stimulation and sources of relaxation.

One obvious counter-argument is that many people don’t want power in the traditional sense of the word. I think that this point, however, doesn’t use a sufficiently nuanced interpretation of “power”. Power doesn’t need to involve giving orders to other people; as Weber pointed out, power and authority can take various forms. In the next section, I’ll look at power in the sense of perceived control of the surrounding world, including perceived control of interactions with other humans.

Script theory and Transactional Analysis

An important part of power is being able to reduce uncertainty. The more you know about what’s going to happen next, the less mental effort you need to put into contingency planning and into revising plans to handle new events.

This takes us back to pattern-matching; in this case, trying to identify regular patterns of behaviour in the human world and elsewhere.

Script theory and Transactional Analysis are two approaches that deal with regularities in human behaviour. At the heart of both approaches is the idea of the script, i.e. a regular series of actions, often with optional branches. The classic example is the script for eating in a restaurant, where the actions include being greeted by a waiter, being shown to a table, and hanging up coats. Scripts can include sub-scripts, and can also include provision for doing X if the script encounters event A, or doing Y if the script encounters event B. It’s a powerful model, that can model considerable complexity using a small number of basic concepts.

A lot of human behaviour involves scripts of this sort. They’re usually so familiar that we don’t notice them until we encounter a similar situation that requires a very different script, such as dining in a Chinese restaurant for the first time.

Scripts provide predictable regularities in our interactions with other people and with the world. One branch of popular psychology, namely Transactional Analysis, has attempted to describe a large number of scripts in plain English. This approach is particularly interesting because it provides explanations for why many people appear to want to end up in unpleasant situations. (Whether those explanations are correct is another question, but the underlying concept is interesting.)

An example is the Transactional Analysis script of “Mine’s bigger than yours” compared to the script of “General Motors”. These go in very different directions from the same starting point. Imagine a conversation that starts with the observation: “So you’re driving a Mondeo”.

The “Mine’s bigger than yours” script player will steer the conversation towards a claim that their car is better than the other person’s. The “General Motors” script player will steer the conversation towards a discussion of the pros and cons of different types of car. The first conversation is competitive and confrontational; the second is non-competitive and non-confrontational.

A central belief in Transactional Analysis is that every individual will actively attempt to manipulate interactions with other people in a direction that validates the individual’s beliefs about what the world is like. In the example above, someone who believes that the world is a competitive place will use the “Mine’s bigger than yours” script in conversations with other people. Someone who believes that the world is a co-operative place where people are happy to share knowledge will tend to use the “General Motors” script. Both of them will usually decide that the resulting conversation provides evidence that their world view is correct.

This principle can lead to counter-intuitive consequences, such as people attempting to validate their view that the world is a gloomy, lonely place by behaving in a way that makes their world gloomy and lonely. Paradoxically, that validation tells them that their model of the world is correct and that therefore they have as much control over their world as anyone can reasonably expect to have.

This issue has clear parallels with political and religious belief systems, which provide a framework that claims to give the individual a clear place in a predictable world. Any facts that challenge an individual’s framework are usually very unwelcome, because without that framework, the individual usually has only fragments of explanation to cling on to when trying to make sense of the world, rather than a coherent big picture.

This phenomemon might explain why believers in some frameworks occasionally flip from one set of extreme beliefs and behaviours straight to the apparent opposite. If your belief system contains detailed scripts telling you how “Our Group” behaves, and equally detailed scripts telling you how “The Hated Others” behaves, then if you abandon your original group, you have a ready-made detailed knowledge of an alternative framework that you can use.

Closing thoughts

This article is largely speculative. However, the speculations come from solid bodies of evidence and theory, and they provide interesting, often counter-intuitive, and often testable explanations for why people behave in some of the ways that they do.

In later articles, I’ll explore some of these issues in more detail.


You’re welcome to use Hyde & Rugg copyleft images for any non-commercial purpose, including lectures, provided that you state that they’re copyleft Hyde & Rugg.

There’s more about the theory behind this article in my latest book: Blind Spot, by Gordon Rugg with Joseph D’Agnese.

Sources of images (some cropped to fit):



2 thoughts on “Things people think

  1. Pingback: 150 posts and counting | hyde and rugg

  2. Pingback: The Knowledge Modelling Book | hyde and rugg

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